Calvinism and Democracy

In 2012 a group of scholars gathered at Princeton Theological Seminary for a conference titled, “Calvinism and Democracy.” The purpose of this conference was to reflect upon the neo-Calvinist legacy, to explore its theological roots, and to assess in what ways this tradition might provide resources for democratic criticism and renewal. The Kuyper Center Review (Volume Four): Calvinism and Democracy represents the published proceedings of this conference.

Although this collection of essays covers a wide range of topics there are two themes that tie all eleven essays together: 1) The notion that democracy today is facing a crisis and 2) The fact that neo-Calvinism has always had a complicated relationship with democracy. Despite these unifying themes this variegated collection of essays lacks coherence. Since there does not seem to be a strong organizing principle behind the arrangement of these essays, for the sake of the review I will divide these essays into three categories: historical essays on Abraham Kuyper, prescriptive essays based upon Kuyper’s theology, and essays examining other theologians.

The historical essays include contributions by seasoned Kuyper scholars George Harinck and Harry Van Dyke, as well as an essay by Clifford Anderson. Harinck contributes the first essay in this collection by exploring the reasons behind neo-Calvinism’s complicated relationship with democracy. Anderson makes perceptive observations regarding the logic behind liberalism and democracy. He argues that the Kuyperian notion of divine sovereignty rather than popular sovereignty allows us to hold these two ideologies together. Finally, Van Dyke makes two contributions; the first is a translation of correspondence between Willem Groen van Prinster and Kuyper regarding Kuyper’s election to parliament. The second is an essay addressing the nature of Kuyper’s democracy and his role as an emancipator of the kleine luyden in the Netherlands.

However, this collection does not limit itself to looking back at neo-Calvinism’s historical and theological roots; in the group of prescriptive essays Jeffrey Stout, Michael Bräutigam, and Michael DeMoor look to Kuyper as a resource for democratic criticism and renewal. Stout turns to Kuyper’s The Social Problem and the Christian Religion in order to prescribe a course of action for addressing the problems of poverty, domination, and exploitation. Bräutigam makes the case that Kuyper’s distinction between the church as an institution and as an organism “provides a significant motif for Christian political involvement” (p. 67). Finally, DeMoor calls upon other political theologians to develop a specifically neo-Calvinist conception of deliberative democracy rooted in the God’s sovereignty.

The final group of essays are focused on theologians other than Kuyper. David Little argues that Calvinist theology has made “a significant, if sometimes very ambivalent contribution” to the rise of modern constitutionalism (p. 24). He makes this argument by turning to the political theology of John Calvin, John Cotton, and Roger Williams. In “Distinctively Common,” Clay Cooke utilizes the thought of Herman Bavinck to develop ways to hold on to Christian peculiarity and the common good in the public square. James Eglinton also looks to Bavinck’s theology and shows how Bavinck could support the democratic development of the Netherlands while insisting that churches ought to be organized around principles that differ from democracy. Finally, Brant Himes shows how Kuyper’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christology and doctrines of creation enable them live our their convictions that Christianity demands “public discipleship.”

Calvinism and Democracy is a superb collection of essays that will serve to stimulate further theological and political reflection upon its subject matter. Many of these essays provide avenues for further scholarly research. For instance Clay Cooke’s essay suggests that Bavinck sees cruciformity as a political virtue. One might want to further investigate what it looks like in practice to engage in politics in a cruciform manner. Michael Bräutigam’s essay “The Christian as Homo Politicus” explains how Kuyper used new forms of media to stimulate political action among the kleine luyden. It would certainly be a worthwhile project to see how new forms of social media, including twitter and blogs, could be used to continue Kuyper’s legacy of stimulating political action within the church. In addition to stimulating further research, this collection will also serve ministers who are attempting to form their own theology of political action within the church. Clay Cooke’s and Michael Bräutigam’s essays will be especially helpful. Both essays move beyond mere theory and develop practical courses of action for the church.

Despite possessing these strengths, this collection certainly has its flaws. One weakness of the collection as a whole is its lack of organization. There is no apparent logic as to how the individual essays were organized within the collection. Several essays also have major flaws. For instance, DeMoor’s essay does not make any significant contribution to neo-Calvinist scholarship, here merely calls for someone else to develop a neo-Calvinist model of deliberative democracy. The essay would have been stronger if he had developed it a model himself. Little’s essay also has a serious flaw; although he addresses John Cotton’s and Roger Williams’s political theories he never specifically addresses their distinctive Calvinist theology. This certainly undermines his thesis. Despite these drawbacks Calvinism and Democracy is a valuable collection that will stimulate further scholarly work and encourage ministers to develop their own theology of political action.

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